Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
“Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”
When was the last time you got lost? Was it the result of human error or technology? Or both? Last year, a groom went to the wrong wedding and almost married the wrong woman because of an error by Google Maps. You’re probably asking how he could marry the wrong woman, it appears that this was an arranged marriage, so the prospective bride and groom did not realize the mistake, because they had never met. Family members from the two families discovered the mistake as they chatted before the wedding. Fortunately, the wedding never took place and both families handled the situation gracefully.
GPS technology gets a bad rap sometimes, but there are some of us who can’t do without it. A few years ago, a man in Australia accidentally drove 400 miles away from his intended destination because wouldn’t stop and ask for directions. He set out to pick up a morning newspaper, but he took a wrong turn and ended up driving for hours on a major highway until he finally stopped and asked the police for directions back home.
He told the police officer who gave him directions that he didn’t need a GPS because he had only been lost once before in his life. Some people have to get really lost before they’ll admit they’re lost.
An insurance company took a poll of its customers which revealed that about 12% of their male drivers will never ask for directions, even when they’re obviously lost, and more than 25% of their male drivers will drive around lost for at least 30 minutes before they will ask for directions. Even when they ask for directions, 40% of male drivers might not trust or follow the directions given to them. The poll researchers concluded that the men in their survey drove an average of 276 “lost miles” each year. However, female customers drove an average of 256 “lost miles” each year.
I think these poll results reveal the social pressure men feel to be responsible and self-reliant, to not ask for help. That’s a heavy burden to carry sometimes. No one wants to admit they’re lost. No one wants to admit that they’ve wasted time or energy going in the wrong direction. We’re not exactly proud of our “lost miles,” are we?
I believe we can look at the Ten Commandments today as God’s desire to point us in the right direction, to keep us from wasting our lives to “lost miles.” The Ten Commandments are a reflection of God’s love for us. Instead of focusing on the what the commandments say, I want to focus on why God gave them. We find that answer in Exodus 20:20. After delivering the Ten Commandments that God mandated for His chosen people, Moses tells the frightened Israelites in Exodus 20: 20, Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.
There’s a love note from God buried in this verse. The Hebrew word used here for “sinning,” means to miss the path or to lose oneself. Think about what that means. God established the Commandments to keep us from missing God’s path or losing ourselves. So often we look at the commands of God as a way of God exerting control over our lives. But what if we’ve got it all wrong? What if God’s commands are an act of love to protect us?
In Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve rebelled against God, they lost themselves. The consequence of sin, of missing God’s path, was separation from God and from God’s purposes for humanity. They experienced shame, fear, banishment from God’s presence and from the security of the Garden. And eventually death.
The purpose of the commandments is to restore our relationship with God.
First, let’s put this moment in context. Just three months earlier, Moses had led the people of Israel out of 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Generations of Israelites had lived under the unpredictable urges of a string of Pharaohs who used them for heavy labor. They also lived in a society that worshiped hundreds of gods. Their time in captivity had destroyed the Israelites’ identity, their culture and their religion. If they don’t make a clean break with their past, they will remain in bondage. A person can be removed from bondage, but if they’re missing the path of God, they’re still not free.
In the previous chapter, Exodus 19, God told Moses that if the people of Israel obeyed Him fully and kept His covenants, God would call them His treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Think about it, how do you take a people who have lived under the brutality of slavery and oppression and restore their identity as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation? You start by restoring their relationship with God. God reminds them of who He is. These people had been raised in a culture that worshiped hundreds of gods. Each god had control over some aspect of Egyptians’ daily lives, and each god had some small part in maintaining an orderly world. If these gods were not properly banished, they might allow them to fall back into disorder and chaos.
But when there’s only one God, one true God, relationship is retored. If there’s only one God who created us, then our identity and purpose are rooted in God’s identity and purpose. So, the Ten Commandments begin by revealing who God is. He is the Lord their (our) God, the one who freed them from slavery. The commands to have no other gods before the Lord, to not make or bow down to an image that represents a god, to not misuse the Lord’s name, and to rest on the Sabbath all reinforce God’s holiness and preeminence, and God’s consistency of His character. No one can control this god by making sacrifices to a carved image or chanting ritualistic prayers to it. God didn’t just free them from physical bondage; by restoring the relationship between God and His chosen people, He frees them from the cycle of never-ending compromise necessary in an idolatrous society.
There’s a Jewish legend that a certain leaf wanted to be free to fly like a bird. It struggled to separate itself from the tree and floated to the ground. But without the life-giving power of the tree, the leaf slowly withered and died. As it died, it cried to the other leaves, don’t do as I have done. It’s death instead of freedom.
And the second purpose of the commandments is to shape the nation of Israel into God’s original purpose for them: “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19: 6, NIV) Remember, generations of Israelites had lived in slavery, unable to create their own laws and manage their own lives. Now they were wandering through the desert, desperate for stability to dream of a future for themselves. How can they catch God’s vision for a peaceful, stable and righteous society that demonstrates to surrounding nations the character of God? By establishing commands that emphasize peaceful, just, stable and righteous relationships among people. In every place the Israelites settled, their obedience to the laws of God served as a powerful witness to the character of God.
The oldest candle company in the world is based in Dublin, Ireland. Rathbornes, which first sold candles made from tallow, or animal fat, was established in 1488 and is still in business today. The Irish government once considered candles to be absolutely essential to the safe functioning of society.
In fact, in 1616 the city government in Dublin passed the “Candlelight Law,” which required that every fifth house keep a lit candle in the window during certain hours to guide passersby safely through the streets.
The Ten Commandments serve as a “Candlelight Law” for the Israelites and all the nations around them. They were intended to make the Israelites into a living embodiment of God’s character and purposes in the world.
But that wasn’t the end of God’s plan. Jesus, God in the flesh, personified the holiness and love, the grace and truth of the Almighty, Creator God. God’s Law was given to guide us into a right relationship with God and with one another until we could have the example and Spirit of Jesus Christ living in us. As Paul writes in Galatians 3: 24-25: So, the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. By faith, we have the Spirit of Jesus living in us and guiding us into those righteous relationships that reflect God’s original plan for creation.
God’s Law was not intended to control us; it was intended to guide us into a right relationship with God and with others. It’s not a burden, it’s an act of love. It was given to restore our relationship with God and re-form our identity as a royal priesthood and a holy nation. And it was meant to guard us from missing God’s path. On our own, we destroy our lives. We needed help, divine intervention. And ultimately, that’s Jesus’ role in fulfilling the Law and the prophets. Jesus Christ came to fill us with His Spirit and make us into the people God created us to be, by defeating the power of sin that stood between us and God and restoring our relationship with Him forever.